“The fight against the Left remains the glue that binds,” Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told her Cabinet the other day, after ordering the budget secretary to release an extra P1 billion to boost the renewed effort to crush the communist insurgency. Whoever fed her this wrong and dangerous line is setting the stage for fascist rule. In equating the “Left” with armed rebellion, Ms Arroyo effectively sanctions the use of death squads to silence political dissenters.
Though the likes of Gen. Jovito Palparan pretend not to know it, there is a huge difference between being Left and taking up arms against the government. To be Left is to be constantly concerned with the basic issues of justice and human freedom. It is to question the existing social order, to assail its assumptions, and denounce its oppressive outcomes. To be a leftist is to be committed to the longterm goal of structural change. In contrast, to be a rightist is to find nothing fundamentally wrong with the structure of society; it is to justify and defend its rules.
To take up arms in the pursuit of one’s political beliefs is an altogether different matter. The armed option is employed not only by leftists and rightists, but also by religious rebels and some millenarian cults. Not all leftists advocate the violent overthrow of the state, and not all armed groups are Leftist. To be Left is to think and speak radically about social problems; to be an armed rebel is to participate in the forcible overthrow of government. Our Constitution outlaws armed rebellion, but it resolutely protects freedom of thought and of speech.
Having once flirted with leftists when she was a graduate student, Ms Arroyo ought to know these distinctions. That she has uncritically permitted herself to mouth a Cold War mantra betrays the dominant influence of militarists in her administration. These militarists are not just the former generals in the Arroyo Cabinet; they also include former leftists who, having tasted power, now disdain their ideological past. Former Party members usually become the most virulent rightists. Only the ideology has changed; the dogmatism remains.
What happens when a government lumps leftists and armed rebels together? The results are predictable everywhere. Instead of fading away, the insurgency grows even more. The repression of open dissent forces activists to go underground. The counter-insurgency campaign kills more plain political militants than armed insurgents. Student activists, NGO workers, priests, pastors, and nuns who work with the poor and the powerless become the first defenseless targets.
These are not textbook lessons from Latin America. They are lessons gleaned from the actual experience of the Philippines during Martial Law. The formula is the same. For reasons unique to a given society, a government takes the authoritarian route. It begins by raising the specter of the three C’s — communism, crime, and corruption — to justify the inauguration of a militarized state.
Almost without exception, the cure inflicts more damage than the illness itself. The government mounts an aggressive campaign to wipe out the communist insurgency in two to three years. It only succeeds in extending its life and feeding it with new recruits. It mobilizes the armed forces to restore public order and stabilize the political situation. The repression only forces many activists and critics to go underground. It marginalizes other groups seeking progressive but peaceful alternatives. It marginalizes politics itself, and routinizes military supremacy in decision-making. It launches a campaign to eradicate corruption once and for all. It ends up centralizing it. That was what the Marcos years showed us.
Why is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo taking this route? She is taking this route because militarism is her last card. The crisis of legitimacy continues to haunt her. If the shift to the parliamentary system, which offers her a risk-free way of affirming her right to govern, does not happen soon, she knows she will eventually be booted out of office. The loyal generals who helped her secure her dubious victory in the 2004 election are her final shield. They are in the same boat as her, and they will continue to support her until they find another leader who can protect them against reprisals in a post-GMA government.
Is there a better way? Yes there is. Government must show the people that it is still a source of hope — not their enemy, but their friend. Our people expect little and demand little from government.
More than food, it is justice they clamor for in most instances. Because they believe that justice is for sale in our highly unequal society, they turn to the New People’s Army as the ultimate equalizer. As simplistic as it may sound, it is the experience of powerlessness, rather than sheer poverty, that constitutes the soil in which most rebellions are nurtured.
The communist insurgency has been around for 37 years. That is a long time. It only means that, despite the movement’s own abuses, it has been able to function as an alternative center for our people. There is no way we can wipe it out without killing many innocent civilians. It would be a tragic mistake to treat communist rebels as if they were just another criminal syndicate. We must continue talking to them. But at the same time, we have to find ways of making our people participate and take interest in the peace negotiations. Why should peace talks be the sole responsibility of rebels and government? Neither one owns the nation.
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