Plans are afoot to bring back the long dead Anti-Subversion Act that became law 62 years ago. The military, the police and the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) are asking Congress to do just that on the argument that its re-enactment — it was repealed in 1992 during the Fidel V. Ramos presidency —will enable the Duterte regime to defeat the New People’s Army (NPA) and destroy the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) that commands it.
This is the second time that its return has been contemplated. A similar suggestion from her favorite general, Jovito Palparan, was briefly entertained in 2007 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. But not only the CPP is likely to be targeted today (the NPA is already ilegal). Its alleged “front organizations” — student, workers’, farmers’, teachers’, lawyers’ well as human rights defenders’ groups — may actually be the main targets of a reenacted Anti-Subversion Act.
Legal experts have commented extensively on the many legal infirmities of the original, but little has been said about the context in which it was passed — and about its intentions other than to just outlaw the Communist Party.
Republic Act 1700 was passed by the Philippine Congress in 1957 during the Carlos P. Garcia administration. It was shortly after the defeat, with the help of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), of the HMB (Hukbong Mapagpalaya Ng Bayan — People’s Liberation Army) rebellion.
It was the height of the Cold War between East and West, which began shortly after the end of World War II. In March, 1946, Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, had decried the existence of what he called an “Iron Curtain” that the now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had erected across the Eastern European countries. Churchill called for an alliance of “the English-speaking peoples” of the Western world in preparation for war with their former WWII ally.
Churchill made much of the USSR’s supposed command over the communist parties of the world. In October, 1949, three years after his “iron curtain” speech, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), after nearly 30 years of civil war, won nation-wide victory, and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China.
The victory of the CCP was presented by Western propaganda to the rest of the world as proof of the impending triumph of “the international communist conspiracy” that Moscow was supposedly directing. It was the same “conspiracy” that the US and the dynasties in control of the Philippine government blamed for the Huk rebellion over which the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) had political command. It was to prevent a repeat of the PKP attempt to win political power, together with their resistance to putting in place the changes the country so desperately needed, that was among the reasons why RA 1700 was passed.
The Act, however, went beyond the claim that the PKP it was outlawing was engaged in overthrowing the government. It also said that the Act was meant to prevent the establishment of a totalitarian regime and the government’s being placed “under the control and domination of an alien power,” which at that time was generally assumed to be, or outrightly identified as, the USSR.
The Act’s constitutionality was several times challenged on the argument that it was a bill of attainder because it penalized without trial mere membership in an organization, and that it was also an <em>ex post facto</em> law that retroactively punished acts that were previously not illegal.
The martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos used the Act to arrest and imprison without trial thousands of men and women it claimed were guilty of “subversion.” Using his legislative powers, Marcos amended it in 1976 by including among its targets organizations engaged not only in overthrowing the government, but which were also doing so with the “open or covert assistance and support of a foreign power by force, violence, deceit or other means.” This time the “foreign power” alluded to was assumed to be the People’s Republic of China, which at that time was accused of politically and materially helping the Philippine counterpart of the CCP.
Significantly, the Act did not prevent either the rise of revolutionary peasant, worker and student groups or the “reestablishment” of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968 and its organizing the New People’s Army (NPA) in 1969. Neither did Marcos’ amending it prevent the CPP and the NPA from growing in number, strength and influence during the 14 years (1972-1986) of the Marcos kleptocracy and after.
The Act as amended was repealed during the presidency of Fidel V. Ramos, who, despite his military background, took a more sophisticated approach to the ruling elite’s focus on ending rebellions and “insurgencies.”
Speaking in 1992 when he signed the bill repealing the Anti-Subversion Law, Mr. Ramos described the repeal as indicative of the government’s confidence “in the resilience of our democracy” and a challenge to “communist insurgents” to “compete under our constitutional system and free market of ideas.”
He went on to assure those who had taken up arms that his administration, rather than relying on military means alone, was “addressing the root causes of rebellion” and was determined to “reduce poverty, remedy injustice, remove ignorance and protect the law-abiding.”
Mr. Ramos knew that the democratization of politics and governance could put an end to rebellion and armed social movements once it met the demand for reforms from such previously disempowered sectors as farmers and workers. The repeal of the Anti-Subversion Act was part of his long-term and certainly more astute strategy of putting an end to the conflicts that have riven the country for decades.
The advocates of reviving the Act today would do well to rethink their assumption that it will do what they think it will, not only because of what it failed to accomplish during the years it was in effect from 1957 to 1992 but also because of its anti-democratic character. And rather than reviving it, they should instead focus on preventing the country’s falling into authoritarian rule and its being taken over by another foreign power.
The original targets of the “foreign power” phrase in the Act — the Soviet Union and Socialist China — have since morphed into a gangster regime and a capitalist predator. The rulers of Russia are focused only on staying in power. Xi Jinping’s China no longer supports national liberation movements anywhere, and in fact cozies up to dictators in the pursuit of its interests.
The possibility of the country’s being taken over by another alien power has nevertheless become even more likely today than at any other time in recent history. During the troubling and troubled watch of the provincial despotism now in command of the police, military and civilian bureaucracies, imperialist China has made significant inroads into the country’s territorial seas and exclusive economic zone, as well as in Philippine society, its economy and its politics.
The imminent danger to this country and its people is the subversion of the Constitution through the reimposition of authoritarian rule and the sell-out of the country to another foreign power. The Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces, and the DILG should propose and support a bill that will address that double treachery rather than reviving a law that was unconstitutional even then, 62 years ago. Maybe — just maybe — this country can then end up with a real anti-subversion act.