The turn to militarism

On Feb. 24th, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017 declaring a state of national emergency.  Invoking her powers as Commander-in-Chief, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the armed forces “to maintain law and order throughout the Philippines, prevent or suppress all forms of lawless violence, as well as any act of insurrection or rebellion and to enforce obedience to all the laws and decrees….promulgated by me personally or upon my direction.”

The maintenance of law and order is a function of the police — not of the military.  That is the reason the Constitution says the armed forces may be called out for this purpose only “whenever it becomes necessary.”  In its decision on Proclamation 1017, the Supreme Court affirmed the President’s power to call out the armed forces. But it rejected the attempt to stretch this power.  The Court ruled that the military may only be used to suppress lawless violence, and not for law-enforcement in general.  The Court also reminded Ms Arroyo that she has no authority to enact decrees.

The SC ruling recognized the right of the President to declare “a state of national emergency.”  But it emphatically rejected the claim that she could thus exercise emergency powers, “such as the take-over of privately owned public utility or business,” without an explicit authority from Congress.

Malacanang’s attempt to exercise greater powers than those actually invoked did not escape the high court’s sharp eyes. Hindi nakalusot, ika nga.  But this is not an isolated instance.  The use of the law and of constitutional procedures as a veneer for venal activities has been the pattern under Ms Arroyo’s government.  Here is a militarist mindset lurking behind legal language.

When did Gloria’s government turn militarist?  I would say, since she began preparing for the 2004 election.  This decision alienated most of her civil society allies.  It made her almost completely dependent for political survival on the retired generals she brought into the Cabinet. They became her essential conduit to the generals in the field, some of whom, as the Garci Tapes reveal, played key roles in ensuring her incredible lead in Mindanao. The transfer of retired Gen. Eduardo Ermita from the Defense department to the powerful Office of the Executive Secretary in October 2004 was a turning point.

On the 33rd anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, Exec. Sec. Ermita issued this order to the police: “The rule of calibrated preemptive response is now in force, in lieu of maximum tolerance. The authorities will not stand aside while those with ill intent are herding a witting or unwitting mass of people and inciting them into actions that are inimical to public order, and the peace of mind of the national community.”  The SC has since struck down this patently unconstitutional order.

In three separate rulings, the Court upheld the supremacy of civil liberties in our society.  But the practice of going after individuals suspected of locally mobilizing for rallies has continued. The military is at the forefront of this campaign.  It has placed urban poor communities that participate in mass mobilizations under surveillance.  Military operatives routinely identify and visit suspected leaders in their homes.  In “sonas” reminiscent of the Japanese occupation, they herd residents in the plaza to watch a video on the enemies of the state.  The same campaign has been going on in the provinces, where almost a hundred known activist-organizers operating in the open legal arena have been murdered since Arroyo became president.

The disturbing absence of any public outcry over these killings appears to have emboldened the perpetrators.  The hit squads are operating on an almost daily basis now.  The latest victim, Annaliza Abonador, a leader of a women’s group in Bataan and an organizer for the Kapisanan Para Sa Pambansang Demokrasya, an affiliate of the Laban ng Masa coalition, was shot in cold blood by motorcycle riding assassins inside the gift shop she was tending.

The targets are all organizers from the Left.  The police and the military have, of course, denied any involvement in these summary executions. A police general has suggested that these may be intramovement murders.  This idea, which rides on the memory of movement purges in the late ‘80s, is preposterous.  There is no known ongoing purge within the Left today.  Neither can these murders be viewed as outcomes of the conflict between rival factions of the Left.  The extreme measures employed by the present government have made militants forget their differences, if only for the moment.

What the public fears most about the military running the government is already upon us.  The intolerance for dissent, the suppression of civil liberties, and the harassment of communities through “sonas” have become routine under the Arroyo government.  These tactics cannot be justified as aspects of the fight against communism.  These can only be viewed as the last weapons of an unpopular regime that is unable to secure itself by legitimate means.

The kindest thing one can say about Ms Arroyo at this point is that she has become an unwitting tool of a consortium of militarists and legal technicians who prey upon her political weakness.  But, on the other hand, it is probably more accurate to say that she is aware she has reached the end of the line, and now she has only two options left.  She either quietly resigns, or she brings down the whole country with her.  My fear is that she has no qualms about doing the latter.

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