Promoted to major general by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Jovito Palparan echoed in 2009 her declaration that she wanted Republic Act 1700, the Anti-Subversion Act, “revived,” although the proper word should have been “exhumed,” RA 1700 having been long dead.

Then President Fidel Ramos signed Republic Act 7636, which repealed RA 1700, on September 22, 1992. When Arroyo and Palparan expressed their wish, the Anti-Subversion Act had been dead for nearly two decades.

RA 1700 was enacted in 1957 to help defeat the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (People’s Liberation Army)—the HMB, or Huks. But the Act was even more extensively used to suppress dissent and protest during the 1960s.

The Marcos regime later used it to terrorize critics and opponents, some of whom it brought before military tribunals on charges of subversion. By 1986, over 100,000 Filipinos had been arrested and detained, and others murdered and tortured, on the strength of the same charge.

The Act penalized membership in the Communist Party of the Philippines, declaring the CPP “and any other organization having the same purpose and their successors illegal and outlawed” for being “an organized conspiracy to overthrow the Government of the Republic of the Philippines for the purpose of establishing in the Philippines a totalitarian regime and [placing] the Government under the control and domination of an alien power.”

Because it penalized mere membership in an organization, its successors and all others similar to it without the benefit of a trial, it was criticized for being a bill of attainder. For its retroactive application to those individuals who committed acts that were not illegal prior to the passage of the Act, Constitutional law and human rights experts argued that RA1700 was also an ex post facto law. RA 7636, which has only three sections, does not address these criticisms, but merely repeals RA 1700.

Both Palparan and Arroyo apparently thought that “reviving” RA 1700 would give a legal cover to the Arroyo regime policy targeting activists, dissenters, reformists and anyone else they accused of being a communist. What they failed to notice—or simply ignored—was that the Act was repealed at the instance of then President Fidel V. Ramos, a former Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff, who later became Secretary of Defense during the Corazon Aquino administration. He was also Chief of the defunct Philippine Constabulary during the martial law period.

Not only can we presume that General Ramos knew what he was doing. He signed RA 7636 on September 22, 1992, or twenty years after Marcos declared martial law. That was a statement meant to distance Ramos and his administration from the regime he had served, and from which he withdrew support during the 1986 “People Power” mutiny.

But Ramos, said his closest adviser, retired General Jose Almonte, had also decided to make peace with all armed groups even before he was sworn into office in 1992. Ramos made peace with military putschists and with the Moro National Liberation Front between 1995 and 1996. But he had Congress repeal the Anti-Subversion Act barely three months after he was installed as President, according to Almonte, in order to “actualize the vision of a Filipino nation living in freedom, dignity, justice, prosperity at peace with itself and with the world.”
The skeptical need not buy into Almonte’s explanation. But Ramos did cause the repeal of a bad law that for 35 years had been used against dissenters, and what’s even worse, had been the main “legal” weapon of the Marcos tyranny in suppressing criticism, protest, and anti-regime resistance.

Theoretically at least, the repeal of RA 1700 also allowed all groups including the Communist Party, its affiliates and other organizations with similar aims to participate in the political process including elections. Were Ramos and his advisers thinking that these groups’ participation in Philippine politics would undermine the claim that, the political system being so restrictive that reforms from within it are impossible, only by taking up the gun could changes in Philippine society be achieved?

It can be argued that this was Ramos’ main intent—a sophisticated approach beyond the purely military means and brutal repression against armed groups and their sympathizers that has long been tested and found wanting in the Philippines. It implicitly recognized the legitimacy of the grievances of the political movements opposed to the government, but at the same time was also meant to take the wind out of those movements’ sails.

The Arroyo-Palparan approach is in contrast not only a primitive, purely military tactic caught in the time warp of the 1950s and the martial law period. It is also counter-productive. Persecuting, torturing and/or assassinating the presumed allies, supporters, sympathizers and affiliates of political and social movements hardens resistance. What’s even more crucial is that these methods validate the argument in favor of an armed response to State violence.

Apparently Palparan’s University Belt education did not help him and those generals who share his “kill them all and sort them out later” methods to develop either the imagination or the perception of Ramos and company. Neither did it enable him to arrive at a rational analysis of what was already happening during his time, which among others included the participation of reformers and revolutionaries in the political system either through elections or advocacy organizations. His command abducted, tortured and murdered some of the very same men and women who had chosen other paths to the transformation of Philippine society. Palparan was not only depriving the country the benefit of the ideas and commitment of these individuals; he was also providing ample justification for taking up arms rather than discouraging it.

The Palparan approach is fundamentally flawed, a fallacy based on the assumption that free men and women will simply allow their fellow human beings to be tortured and murdered without raising a fist—or a gun—in protest.

The good news is that Palparan is in State custody three years after a warrant of arrest was issued against him. But judging from the continuing violation of human rights in this country—the abductions, the torture and the assassinations— that does not mean that we have seen the last of his ilk.

Torturers and mass murderers belong to a separate category of being altogether, creatures whom we only imagine capable of compassion or even a sense of common decency. They are the ideal instruments of the regimes of terror that still reign in many parts of the planet—and, in these isles of fear, they still roam both city and countryside.

First published in BusinessWorld.

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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