Since 1986, the anniversary of the 1972 declaration of martial law had been marked with the certainty and determination that it would never happen again. This year, however, human rights and other groups are not so much recalling the event as warning that a version that’s much the worse for its being undeclared is already in place.

The end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 seemed to signal not only the restoration of its pre-martial law state, but even the birth of a Philippines committed to the respect and enhancement of human rights and wider political participation.

Remnants of authoritarian rule remained, however. Their most visible expressions were the coup attempts by ultra right-wing military-civilian groups that began to haunt the Aquino administration as soon as it assumed power. But there was a sense that whatever else may happen, the return to authoritarian rule was a line it would not cross.

The new government’s military and police did massacre farmers at Mendiola, and created paramilitary groups in the countryside whose respect for human rights left much to be desired. Though the most serious incident of its kind after 1986, the first was regarded as an exception rather than the rule, while the second was thought to be the result of pressure from a military the Aquino government could barely control.

These perceptions could have been false. But there was no sign of any systematic attempt or conspiracy to savage human rights. Under the protection of a new constitution, free expression and the free press flourished, despite the occasional murder of journalists in the provinces, a libel suit Mrs. Aquino herself filed against a Manila columnist in 1989, and efforts at film censorship.

The exit of Mrs. Aquino from power and her replacement by Fidel Ramos in 1992 was achieved without the disorder some analysts thought was certain. Many critics felt it likely to constrict the democratic space that had been gained in 1986. But the Ramos government surprised them all. Despite the dominance of former military officers in it, its Congressional majority repealed the repressive Anti-Subversion Law. It also resumed peace talks with both the Moro National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Front, and in fact managed to get the former’s Nur Misuari to preside over the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao as its governor.

Despite the inefficiency and alleged corruption of his brief tenure, Joseph Estrada’s attempts at the intimidation of his critics were limited to inept stabs at media control. The free press survived his clumsy efforts, as did free expression and freedom of assembly. The latter was in fact the primary means through which Estrada was ousted in 2001 via EDSA 2.

Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s watch was controversial from the very beginning, when her government approved a contract with the Argentine company IMPSA just two days after her coterie marched into Malacanang. In an only too obvious move to restore Philippine-US military relations to their pre-1990 state, Mrs. Arroyo used the September 11 attacks on the US that same year to commit the Philippines to whatever actions the United States may take in retaliation. Eventually she used “anti-terrorism” to justify the return of US troops to the Philippines despite a constitutional ban.

Since 2004 we have witnessed the constriction of the democratic space won during EDSA 1. The killing of political activists accelerated that year, although those of journalists reached record highs in 2003.

To silence demands that she explain the “Hello Garci” tapes, and allegations that she cheated in the 2004 elections, Mrs. Arroyo’s police also curtailed freedom of assembly through a “no-permit-no-rally” rule, and later, the Calibrated Preemptive Response policy.

The culmination of these systematic efforts to subvert the Bill of Rights was Proclamation 1017. PP1017, in its wording and the acts it authorized, imposed martial law without an actual declaration and by ignoring the Constitution altogether. Although lifted a week after its declaration last February 22, its effects remain in place

The refusal of executive department officials to attend congressional hearings, their ignoring Supreme Court decisions declaring arrests without warrants and the CPR policy unconstitutional, and military officials’ undermining civilian authority in the provinces while the assassination of political activists and government critics including members of the opposition continues–all these indicate a state of de facto martial law.

The regime cannot retreat from this state, and can only continue with its consolidation of authoritarian rule. The main conduit of that consolidation will be the making of a new constitution, which, while pretending to build on the 1987 charter, will dismantle it together with the democratizing and progressive legacies of EDSA 1.

The regime campaign for charter change must be understood in the context of its need to consolidate its power and legalize authoritarian rule. The Arroyo regime is obeying a constitution that is yet to be, whose characteristics down to its last anti-human rights provision it has already shaped.

(Business Mirror)

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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