Undermining institutions

At one point in the Senate hearing on the alleged money-laundering and criminal activities of Senator Panfilo Lacson, Colonel Victor Corpus, head of the military intelligence unit and Lacson’s chief accuser, found himself being accused instead of undermining our society’s institutions.  The senators pinned him down on his statement that judges, media people, and public officials were accepting bribes to protect criminal syndicates.

One of his key informants, Angelo “Ador” Mawanay, a self-described civilian agent in the defunct Police Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) under Lacson, suffered a worse fate. He was ordered detained at the Senate basement for making statements at the hearing that he could not support with evidence. The senators got bogged down with the side issues, and it took a while before they could begin to hear the main item in the agenda — the allegations against Senator Lacson.

The senators are right to demand that Corpus be specific in his charges and to name names when necessary.  They are correct in insisting that he present solid evidence to substantiate his claims. They have the responsibility to assess the information he gives and to question him on the procedure he followed to get it.  If they find his evidence empty and his explanations inadequate, they should demand that he be sanctioned for recklessness and incompetence.

But the senators cannot do this to Corpus without hearing him first. They are supposed to be engaged in fact-finding. They are not judges.  They must resist the urge to rebuke or scold resource persons and witnesses whose statements they do not like, except when they are discourteous, unruly or uncooperative.  They can remind them that they are under oath, and admonish them to be circumspect in their statements.  But by what moral right can they order the detention of a witness just because they find his testimony to be incredible?

Corpus has said that he is aware that he is putting his entire career on the line for accusing a member of the Senate of serious crimes. He says he is ready to be proven wrong and to suffer the consequences.  He knows he could be sacked from his position. He could also be court-martialed, stripped of his rank, and jailed.  But it is one thing for him to be found making allegations that turn out to be baseless and another to be accused of undermining institutions.

Are our institutions undermined when someone says they are not working properly because they have been corrupted?  Political analysts say this all the time and nobody seems to make a big thing out of it.  Not too long ago, Joseph Estrada denounced what he called “hoodlums in robes and in uniform” in reference to corrupt judges and policemen, and people thought he was being perceptive.  No one accused him of undermining our institutions.

The credibility of institutions is not lost just because we criticize their officials.  Citizens begin to distrust their institutions when they see that the results of institutional processes violate their deepest expectations.   Have we been getting good leaders by our existing system of elections?  Do our schools produce responsible and capable citizens?  Does our judicial system deliver justice?  These are the questions we should be asking instead of debating whether institutions are weakened by public criticism.

If our institutions were strong and reliable, we would not be wondering to this day who killed Ninoy Aquino.  We would know how Marcos accumulated wealth by illegal means and who among his associates made it possible.  We would know which lawmakers were elected with the aid of “dagdag-bawas.”  The financier behind the payola scandal at the House of Representatives would no longer be a secret.  The police officers who ordered the summary execution of the Kuratong Baleleng gang would be known by now.

My own view is that our basic institutions remain weak, and that is why we have had to go back often to the political arena to settle many questions that should have been routinely resolved.  Senator Nene Pimentel gave up the senate presidency at the height of the impeachment trial because he thought he could no longer preside over a damaged institution.  Joker Arroyo, himself now a senator, walked out of the trial with the rest of the prosecution team because he could no longer trust in the senate’s fairness.  Gloria Macapagal Arroyo succeeded to the presidency by virtue of People Power II because the nation saw that it could no longer expect justice from a compromised senate and did not believe either that a snap election was the best way to solve the impasse in the presidency.  Cory Aquino became president after the people ignored the spurious official results of the 1986 snap election and ousted the incumbent president, Ferdinand Marcos.  She threw away the 1973 Constitution and appointed a commission to draft a new one.

In all these instances, we set aside our institutions because they were being used to thwart the very things we value.  But every time we did so, after employing extra-constitutional means to set things right, we went about rebuilding these institutions and restoring the rule of law. We are able to do this, I think, because we have realized that a functioning institutional system does not happen overnight but is rather something we must achieve, and that we should not equate institutions with their present occupants.

Col. Corpus is not the enemy.  The greatest enemies of democratic institutions are not their critics but their corrupt practitioners.


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