Major General Jovito Palparan’s suggestion that an anti-subversion act similar to RA 1700 should be passed has a strange ring to it, this being the 21st century. But I suppose no one should be surprised. Palparan represents a view in the military on how to deal with rebellion and other forms of social unrest that–no matter how caught in a time warp somewhere in the 1950s it may be–has been current in the Arroyo administration since 2001.

Palparan’s favored approach is the purely military one that has dominated much of Philippine military thinking since the early 20th century. Under US direction, the antecedents of today’s AFP then continued the “kill them all, sort them out later” policy of the US occupation forces. Among other characteristics, this approach looks at the Bill of Rights as a hindrance because it gives dissenters, specially leftists, the legal right to express themselves.

As Palparan has allegedly implemented it in Mindoro, Samar and Central Luzon, this approach does not recognize the right of the non-combatants of legal unarmed groups to disagree with and oppose government policies, and lumps them together with New People’s Army guerillas. (Palparan is accused of committing over 500 cases of human rights violations including the assassination of political activists, which he has denied.)

The approach is at least as outdated as its colonial and Cold War parenthood, and is patently counter-productive. We have the entire history of rebellions in the Philippines to attest to it. During the martial law period, for example, attacking communities that support guerilla groups without addressing grievances alienated citizens and swelled rebel ranks. The killing of political activists is only a variation of the same tactic–and incidentally requires less effort, since it is easier to kill open, legal personalities.

The more sophisticated approach is that of the then Ramos wing of the military. This approach assumes that rebellions are better dealt with by addressing–or seeming to address–popular grievances. But it also includes opening up the political system to entice leftists into abandoning the armed option for change.

Many students of Philippine politics and government thought Ramos would use purely military tactics to address the secessionist issue and the armed effort of the NDF-CPP-NPA. But upon assuming the Presidency, Ramos also called on Congress to repeal Republic Act 1700. Both Houses obliged, and on September 22, 1992–the 20th anniversary of the declaration of martial law–he signed RA 7636 repealing RA 1700. (Among the sponsors of RA 7636 were then Congressman Eduardo Ermita and then Senator Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.)

Unlike the Cold Warriors who passed RA 1700 in 1957, Ramos believed that–as then Defense Secretary Renato de Villa said in a speech on November 3, 1992–the repeal of RA 1700 was necessary to “enable them [the CPP and similar groups] to participate and compete freely, openly and peacefully in the political, economic and social arena of Philippine society.” (It was also during Ramos’ time when the participation of party-list groups in Congressional elections began.)

RA 1700 had criminalized membership in, and outlawed the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) as well as “similar associations” (read: the CPP-NPA). The Act included in the term “Communist Party of the Philippines” the PKP itself, the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan or HMB, “and any successors of such organizations.” Anyone who joined any of these organizations or remained a member was penalized with six years’ imprisonment up to death.

Throughout the 35 years when it was in force, RA 1700 was the subject of much debate. Human rights groups and lawyers contended that its penalizing offenses committed before its passage made it an ex post facto law (a law that penalizes an offense that was legal before it was passed). Its penalizing mere membership in an organization even without the commission of any illegal act also made it a bill of attainder (a law that penalizes without trial).

RA 1700 proved convenient to the Marcos martial law regime, which made members of any organization professing remotely similar aims as the CPP subject to arrest, detention, torture and even death. “Subversion” was such a catch-all that it was used to arrest journalists, teachers, students, labor and farmer leaders, nuns and priests, and anyone else thought to be opposed to, or likely to oppose, martial rule.

Although Section 9 of the original law declared that “nothing in this Act shall be interpreted as a restriction to freedom of thought, of assembly and of association,” it did restrict these freedoms even before the declaration of martial law. Any organization that had programs similar to the CPP, for example, could be labeled as its “successor,” just as any utterance similar to CPP utterances could open the speaker or writer to accusations of membership in the CPP.

During the debate on the repeal of RA 1700, the late Senator Raul Roco pointed out that RA 1700 was “a sword of Damocles dangling above the head of every citizen who would quickly shun the enjoyment of his fundamental rights if only to avert probable prosecution under the Anti Subversion Act.”

Roco argued that dissent “can take the form of the most critical and disparaging remarks…. Any citizen may dissent without fear (of incurring) a penal sanction. That is the essence of freedom of expression.”

But the basic question Palparan’s suggestion raises is which of these approaches works, or can be expected to work. Among the clues that can provide an answer is that the Ramos administration was a time of relative peace. The government signed separate peace agreements with right wing military rebels and the MNLF, and was on the verge of signing another with the NDF. On the other hand, no one in his right mind can argue that the country has been, or is likely to be, at peace during the protracted Arroyo watch.

(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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