Martial law may not be here in legal fact, but it’s here for all intents and purposes. And if it arrived scarcely detected, as apparently it did in spite of our long and recent and stark experience with martial law as a phenomenon, that’s precisely because this time it entered surreptitiously – not to mention that we might, after all, have been predisposed to deny it, having been deeply traumatized the first time.
Indeed, Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law (1972-1986) had its relative niceties. For one thing, it gave what might pass for fair warning under the circumstances: it not only announced itself, but also came with its rules, arbitrary but reassuring in their own way.
Gloria Arroyo’s, on the other hand, has been creeping on us in all sorts of disguises and pouncing at will. Its latest victim has been Satur Ocampo, the lawmaker whose history as a freedom fighter is now being raked up and used for his own persecution. He has been arrested on charges of ordering the execution of comrades in a communist cleansing 22 years ago. As it happened, thanks to Marcos, he was in prison at the time.
Anyway, Ocampo remains in detention, waiting for the Supreme Court to declare the case devoid of merit and forthwith to order him freed. But even when that happens, a reprieve is all he gets, as has been the case with the nation itself after the Supreme Court struck down an order by Arroyo declaring an emergency: she has managed still to, in effect, rule as an emergency president or at least to project herself as such, thus creating an atmosphere that engenders abuse of official power – to the point of murder.
More than 800 political activists have in fact been killed or disappeared, and 50 journalists assassinated in the Arroyo regime. These are numbers not even remotely approached in any other regime since Marcos. The number for journalists itself makes the Philippines the most dangerous place on earth for them after Iraq, which, being itself a war zone, makes for no valid comparison.
To add insult to murder, the Arroyo regime has characterized the activists dismissively, stereotypically, as communists purged by their own movement, and the journalists as mostly corrupt and abusive ones getting their comeuppance. In all cases, meanwhile, the regime has declared the military absolutely innocent.
Finally, it delivers the crowning insult by sending soldiers out in the streets to deal with those tired, old, long-discredited bogeymen again – the communists, this time supposedly out to make trouble in the current electoral season. The insult lies in the irony that soldiers were themselves among the troublemakers in the last election, of May 2004, the precise occasion that may well hold the key to Arroyo’s authoritarian tendencies.
It was at the height of that contest that she committed a decided impropriety, if not in fact a crime: by her own admission, she repeatedly rang an election commissioner seeking from him assurances of a credible victory – “So, I will still lead by more than one ‘m’ [a million votes, that is]?” she is heard on tape asking.
The case remaining unresolved, her legitimacy in office has remained as well under serious question. But then the case is so plainly incriminatory its resolution is not exactly a favorable option for her.
As extreme as it is, authoritarianism seems to suit her character, and she seems managing it. By recycling retiring generals into her administration – there are probably more than a score of them in sensitive offices now – she has begun to institute the command culture and anti-liberal mindset she needs to establish and maintain an authoritarian leadership. But a more immediate achievement is the co-optation of the military, which has been quick to prove itself mechanically loyal with its readiness to follow her orders no matter if these are – as the Supreme Court no less has judged in the most dangerous and egregious cases – unlawful.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has reduced its existence into doing the president’s bidding, overstretching the legitimate idea of political coalition into the treacherous one of conspiracy.
For their part, many in business, a sector that customarily dances with the political wind, have lately shown a flirtation with a radical step promoted by an elder statesman, an idolater of the Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew. That he prefers to go with the fluke and dismiss the native representative specimen, Ferdinand the Real McCoy, defies basic moral logic.
At any rate, what chances do freedom-loving citizens have, disunited, probably intimidated, and mostly preoccupied with survival as they are, against a potent, not to mention armed, partnership for authoritarianism and militarization forged at the highest levels of power?
The immediate and standard recourse is the vote, such as the midterm one in May. But how reliable is an election refereed by a commission that has ignored the most critical issue in the last one and is now widely suspected of similar biases.
How indeed can a vote be made to count in a fraudulent democracy?