As flawed as they have been, every Philippine administration has nevertheless managed to leave behind some sort of legacy. The six-year Presidential term mandated by the Constitution was thought to be long enough for the head of State and his officials to achieve and leave something behind them, despite bureaucratic inefficiency, political accommodation and compromise, and the corruption that has taken deep roots in such agencies as public works, customs and even education. There is also every President’s limitations in terms of dedication to the tasks at hand and the capacity to transcend his or her personal, familial and class interests.
Thus did Ferdinand Marcos manage to achieve something despite his lust for power and pelf, the human rights violations of his regime, and its world-class corruption that bloated the national debt to over USD 30 billion without benefiting anyone but himself. Even worse is the long-term harm he inflicted on this country’s governance when he transformed the military into power brokers whose support has been crucial to every regime that followed his.
But Marcos did build roads and bridges. He constructed hospitals, reestablished diplomatic relations with China, opened a “window to the East” with the USSR, and strengthened the country’s links with the oil-rich countries of the Middle East.
He was after all ensconced in Malacañang for all of 21 years (1965- 1986). Not not even the most incompetent bureaucrat with the worst of intentions could have failed to achieve something in those two decades of being in power, of which 14 years were as absolute ruler. But all these practically come to naught when weighed against his regime’s crimes and misdeeds that were directly responsible for the suffering and deaths of thousands, and, indirectly, those of millions more.
Of the administrations that followed his, although hampered by police and military resistance, Corazon Aquino’s was the most committed to the defense of human rights. Though dampened, that legacy managed to survive the Ramos, Estrada and Macapagal-Arroyo regimes and that of her son Benigno Aquino III’s.
Despite the coup attempts that troubled her six years in office, Mrs. Aquino left behind a new Constitution distinguished by its reform-minded drafters’ determination to prevent the repetition of the horrors of the Marcos past through its Bill of Rights and the safeguards they put in place against the imposition of martial law by an authoritarian head of State.
Those provisions have unfortunately not been enough to protect the critics and dissenters no truly democratic society can do without. Spawned by the violence of provincial politics, the Duterte despotism is likely to go down in history as the only Philippine regime whose head was prosecuted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). In fear of that possibility, it is currently engaged in a self-serving but failing campaign to prove that, as one of its less than outstanding legal minds keeps claiming, the justice system is “robust and functional.” But its most recent attempt in that enterprise is itself demonstrating that the system is practically dead and dysfunctional.
A Department of Justice (DOJ) report on its widely-publicized investigation into 52 “drug war”-related killings rejected the “nanlaban” (fought back) police buzzword to explain away the killing of drug suspects. But rather than criminally charged in court, some of the policemen involved have merely been dismissed from the service, or worse, only suspended. And 52 cases out of the over 6,000 killings the police themselves admit — human rights groups put the numbers at over 30,000 — had taken place because the victims “fought back” is so obviously such a small number that the so-called DOJ investigation is itself demonstrating that impunity reigns, and the justice system is not working as it should.
Secure in the knowledge that they will be immune from prosecution as President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly assured them, the police have not relented either in their use of violence against regime critics, human rights defenders, social and political activists, grassroots lawyers and other dissenters. And neither have they spared, in the time of COVID-19, even those they accuse of violating quarantine protocols and curfew restrictions.
Several cases of police extortion and rape were reported by the media this October alone against those apprehended during curfew hours or for not wearing face masks and/or face shields. Twenty people had earlier been killed by police and other State actors from January to July this year according to media reports. From August to October, there were five instances of police brutality and abuses, among them the killing of a Manila curfew violator, the sexual harassment of a 19- year old Bataan woman accused of non-observance of quarantine restrictions, and several policemen’s demanding Php 50,000 from three people they had apprehended during curfew hours. These incidents followed those of 2020, such as that of the rape of an alleged prostitute by several policemen.
Police violence and impunity have become so much a part of the “new normal” that even some local officials and barangay tanod have been emboldened into abusing citizens for the flimsiest of reasons. Those abuses have included putting people in dog cages, making them stand bareheaded under the heat of the summer sun, and forcing at least one man to do exercises so strenuous it killed him. With the thousands of police apprehensions of alleged curfew and quarantine protocols, more such cases are likely to have been, and to be, unreported.
The roots of the extrajudicial killings and these egregious abuses should by now be evident to everyone except the willfully blind or those who brazenly lie to the public to advance their political and economic interests.
On record is Mr. Duterte’s admission during one of his television appearances that (as translated from the original English and Filipino mix), “My orders to the police and military, and to local officials as well, is that if any trouble maker creates a disturbance and fights back, shoot them dead. Instead of letting you (‘trouble makers’) cause any disturbance, I will bury you.”
Violence is endemic in the Philippines. Its history is replete with uprisings and the repression that has always been the ruling elite’s answer to social unrest. But never since the Marcos kleptocracy have the police and other State agents been as empowered and encouraged than today to freely use armed violence against the citizens they are sworn to protect.
Mr. Duterte claims the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (RA10931) and his “Build, Build, Build” program among his legacies. But the free college education bill was the initiative of, and was filed by, Senators Ralph Recto and Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV; and most of the projects in his BBB program are yet to be completed.
His predecessors’ legacies to Philippine society may be as troubling, as incomplete, or even as totally useless to anyone but themselves. But Mr. Duterte’s contempt for human rights and for the Constitution that protects them has made violence and abuse of power his troubling legacy not only to those who saw through him in 2016, but also to those who elected him then.
Rejecting that dark “gift” is among the central tasks of the next administration. It should restore the respect for the right to life to which every human being is entitled, and the civility vital to democratization and informed discourse.
Add that imperative to the lengthening list of reasons why the 2022 elections are so crucial to the life and future of this long-suffering nation.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.