‘Milenyo’ was the worst typhoon to hit the country in years. The focus on the death toll and the property damage in its aftermath is giving the Arroyo regime a break from the political and other storms that have been smashing into it, and to which it has been mostly immune. While some voices have pointed out that the country’s inability to cope with disasters is a government failing, the regime is, as usual, evading responsibility. So far it seems to be succeeding, given the common belief that about natural disasters one can do little.
About the political violence the regime has unleashed in the countryside–and, most likely, in metro Manila as well–it can’t be slippery for long. Not only has that violence caught the attention of international human rights, church, and non-government groups. It’s also feeding the culture of violence that has ruled Philippine society for nearly four centuries.
The regime is setting back what little progress in human rights observance and the rule of law has been achieved since 1986. It is also validating the view that only violence can resolve the crisis of poverty, bad governance, corruption, and foreign primacy. The regime has generated a perfect storm of outrage. But it has also fomented widespread lawlessness through the force of its example.
The Arroyo regime did not invent political violence. Violence, much of it political, has always been part of Philippine life and society. The 300 years during which the country was under Spanish rule was a long narrative of conflict and violence.
Because they ruled with violence, the Spaniards provoked the counter-violence of the ruled. Almost every year of Spanish power in the Philippines was marked by some form of rebellion, culminating in the Revolution of 1896. But itself characterized by betrayal and internecine violence, that revolution failed, and the United States supplanted Spain as colonial sovereign.
The United States emphasized its supposedly benevolent purposes through the use of soft power in the Philippines. Through cultural assimilation, it convinced the colonized of the righteousness and virtues of their own captivity.
But arms remained the basis of US power, and it used arms to suppress the remnant forces of the Revolution. Because the regime did not address the bases of social unrest, among them the land tenancy system, rebellions and insurgencies persisted during the US colonial period. To these the regime responded with force, even as it was tutoring in ward politics and backroom conspiracies the very same mestizo caste that had collaborated with the Spaniards.
Some argue that the corruption, decay and violence of Philippine society are rooted in the Japanese period, when the elemental need to survive led many Filipinos to put self above others. But the levels of savagery of that period were linked to the immediate and distant past. The Japanese indeed taught Filipinos a few lessons in savagery. Those lessons proved handy during the post-war period.
The restoration of landlord power in the countryside after WW II was achieved through the most sanguinary violence. But repression guaranteed only temporary social peace. Rebellion persisted in response to mass poverty, injustice and misery. Other forms of political violence–for example those associated with elections–flourished. Criminality, fueled at least partly by poverty and despair, continued to grow.
The martial law period saw the further flowering of the culture of violence. The use of force as the dominant state instrument in compelling obedience to it promoted armed resistance, and both the Muslim and communist insurgencies grew in proportion to state repression.
The result of this long history of conflict and violence is a culture in which force is often the arbiter in the resolution of issues, whether political, social or interpersonal. Violence, war and conflict have been facts of life in the Philippines for over 300 years. But the current state of violence may yet prove unprecedented. Violence has assumed epidemic proportions in a society whose government, while abolishing the death penalty, has made political assassination a national policy.
The immunity from prosecution of political killers has a demonstration effect. It encourages the use of lethal force as a first response not only among state security forces, but also among many other Filipinos in addressing almost every issue including the pettiest. A deranged child climbs a power transmission tower in Bulacan, and a barangay councilman shoots him dead. A karaoke bar patron refuses to surrender the mike and he’s stabbed to death. Crime suspects are lined up along a highway and shot. And an increasing number of local officials are being killed by their political opponents, in a repeat of the political violence of the late 1960s.
Governments can and should address the violence that mocks their own laws. It’s part of what governments do. But a government that is itself the main culprit, and that denies its own responsibility for the safety of its citizens, not only encourages lawlessness in general. It also assists in the destruction of the society it’s supposed to protect, and invites violence against itself.