The Senate has passed its version of an anti-terrorism bill, which has been an Arroyo regime priority since 2002. Like every bill of its kind passed in other countries, many of its provisions are outstanding for their retrogressive character, among them restrictions on the media, and the legalization of wire-tapping and government examination of bank accounts.
But as outstanding was the silence of practically all the oppositionists and/or human rights advocates in the Senate during deliberations on it. It was a silence followed by overwhelming approval, the vote being 16 to 2, with only Senators Ana Consuelo (“Jamby”) Madrigal and Manuel Roxas II voting against it.
Senator Aquilino Pimentel voted for it, apparently because he was satisfied over the “safeguards” against abuse that the bill’s proponent, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, had agreed to. Only Pimentel and Madrigal had been actively proposing amendments to the bill to prevent its use against the media, the opposition, and dissent.
The relative silence of Joker Arroyo, whom many Filipinos regard as a human rights defender because of his defense of political prisoners during the Marcos dictatorship, and of oppositionists like the mother and son Estrada tandem and former Senate President Franklin Drilon at one level suggests popular, although misinformed, acceptance of the assumptions of the Arroyo regime’s anti-terrorism policy.
These personalities are presumably aware of the public’s fear of terrorism and its consequent support for anything that will curb it. For this well-founded fear we have Abu Sayyaf depradations to thank, as well as those of their counterparts and possible partners in such countries as Indonesia. Since it began its kidnapping spree in 2002 and followed that with bombings in Mindanao and elsewhere, terrorism has been synonymous with the Abu Sayyaf in the public eye. So outrageous has Abu Sayyaf terrorism been—and so unremitting the media coverage– that it has provoked the same impulse towards doing anything to stop it that has spread in much of the world.
“Doing anything to stop terrorism” has in most cases meant curtailing those rights and liberties that many now think have allowed terrorists to strike in open societies. Such governments as that of George W. Bush in the US and George Howard of Australia have in fact explicitly cited the “openness” of their societies as critical factors in such terrorist attacks as those of September 11, 2001 in the US, and the two Bali bombings in Indonesia, the first of which killed a number of Australian tourists.
Anti-terrorism has reversed a global trend towards liberalization before September 11. The attacks on the World Trade Center inaugurated a new era in which terrorism, while real enough, became a convenient excuse, especially among poor countries with chronic problems of political instability, to suppress dissent and to curtail political and civil rights.
Crucial to these attacks was the way “terrorism” was being defined. In many instances “terrorism” was intentionally identified with dissent as well as with armed movements, the better for existing governments to suppress dissent and/or to deny whatever armed groups they may be fighting with whatever claims to legitimate grievances these may have.
The Arroyo regime thus sought and obtained the listing of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army in the US list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Arroyo regime’s working definition of terrorism has been nebulous, but has tended to equate terrorism with the Abu Sayyaf.
This is only the public perception, however. The Arroyo regime has practically declared the Abu Sayyaf dead, with the capture or death of many of leaders. On the other hand, the military has declared the CPP-NPA as the main threat to regime security. From this it follows that whatever anti-terrorism bill will emerge from Congress (the Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the House bill) will be primarily directed against the CPP-NPA.
“The CPP-NPA”, however, is a concept that in the Arroyo regime includes a host of “front organizations” that include not only the left-wing party list groups (Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Anak Pawis, etc.), but also media and civil society organizations like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and even video production houses. In addition to naming these groups, and in effect legitimizing the attacks on their memberships that have escalated since 2003, the Arroyo regime will have another weapon at its disposal in the form of the anti-terrorism bill in meeting “the CPP-NPA threat.”
And yet the armed groups have the least to fear from any law, they being outside the pale. The anti-terrorism bill as it has been taking form since 2002 is more easily used against a broad range of dissenters and oppositionists. Despite amendments initiated by Senators Pimentel and Madrigal precisely meant to prevent abuse, the Senate bill will not be the final version of the bill. It is also likely that most if not all of the Madrigal-Pimentel amendments will be deleted during the bicameral discussions.
For example, the limitation on the detention of terrorism suspects to three days, and the exemption of doctors and media people from provisions in the Senate bill that penalize “profiting from” or “concealing” the participants in any “conspiracy to commit terrorism” even if they did not participate in it, are likely to be restored in the final version of the bill.
The Senate bill, amendments and all, is bad enough, but the final version is likely to be worse. The anti-terrorism bill could unleash a wave of state terrorism in the name of fighting terrorism. The worst part is that much of the public, in its concern over terrorism, may not be aware that it’s been sold a bill of goods it didn’t bargain for.