Will he, will he not?
Even the most rabid of my anti-Duterte friends just had to laugh out loud, accompanied by reluctant compliments about how smart (“wily” is the word that came to my mind) he can be.
I’m referring to Duterte’s suspension of classes and work in government on Sept. 21, emphasizing that he was not declaring a holiday but a national day of protest. In effect, he was calling people to go out into the streets and protest Marcos, martial law, even his own government.
Tactically, he coopted the calls of the different opposition groups, taking a chance that there would be fewer students who would join the protests. On the other hand, he did warn against making trouble: “Come down here, I will not arrest you. But for the life of me, do not commit a crime.”
After Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address in 2016, I wrote about how he reminded me of the eccentric elderly relative we all have in our families, the one whose behavior — from dirty language to unpredictable rants and rage — would make us feel resentful, even angry, only to have those feelings soften or fade because, after all, he or she is still an elderly relative.
But let’s return to Sept. 21. In many ways though Duterte has created his own dilemma. People were in fact forgetting Marcos and martial law, Sept. 21 coming and going each year with less impact. Then last year, the transfer of Marcos’ remains to the Libingan ng mga Bayani triggered mass protests and reminded people that there was a clear and present danger of historical revisionism, and that the nation could not afford this.
Then Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, which Congress has not only ratified but extended until December.
Then Duterte’s own saber-rattling as Sept. 21 approached, threatening to extend martial law throughout the Philippines.
The mere fact that people are speculating about martial law can be seen as a good sign that people are worried about an escalation of the already worrisome erosion of civil liberties.
What we see is a slow awakening similar to what happened to a Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, who first supported Hitler’s rise to power. As Nazi atrocities spread, the pastor joined the opposition. He is best known for a poem, “First they came,” which exists in different formats but with a similar message, warning against apathy.
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist.” Different versions then name different groups: Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, trade unionists, even people with incurable diseases. The last line always read: “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
That is what has been happening with the extrajudicial killings. It’s the “adik”, the “drug personalities” in the slums; it’s the rebelde, Muslim, National People’s Army. “Adik lang” (just an addict); always the “lang”, “just only” in its most diminished sense. We have to remind ourselves, the lang that makes us quick to turn away from the killings is the same lang that makes it easier for the police or soldier to pump the bullet, or bullets, into their victims.
When I first agreed to have UP Diliman host the Lakbayan march and camp of national minorities and indigenous peoples, it was because I knew how marginalized, how invisible they were. I was warned: but they are communists, the lang left unsaid.
A friend from a wealthy landed family pushed me on with the Lakbayan, recalling how as a child he would hear older relatives talking about how easy it was to get rid of the “natives,” that generic term of condescension used to refer to indigenous peoples, who were “encroaching” on their property and never mind that the lumad had already been there for centuries because they don’t have land titles.
My friend said the natives were easy to deal with, or rather to scare off. “Like rabbits,” he said and my hair stood on end because I wasn’t thinking of timid rabbits being shooed away, but of rabbits being used for target practice.
In the middle of this year’s Lakbayan, we grieved over two deaths, too close to home. On Sept. 5, civilian paramilitary troops shot Obillo Bay-ao, a 19-year-old lumad student, in Talaingod, Davao del Norte. He died the next day. There was hardly any coverage in the media, maybe because it happened too far away, maybe because he was a lumad… lang.
There were front-page headlines for someone much closer to home: Carl Arnaiz, a former UP Diliman student, who allegedly held up a taxi driver and was then killed when he resisted arrest. The driver has since gone into hiding, seeking refuge with a religious group, and came out in a press conference claiming Arnaiz was the one who held him up, but who was killed in police custody. Some of our visiting national minorities observed: “You don’t even have martial law here, and they kill like in Mindanao.”
Mark Twain is often attributed with the quote: “History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.” There are doubts now as to whether he actually said it or not but the line is catchy, and carries wisdom.
We tend to anticipate a repetition of the past in linear terms. Marcos first declared a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, then, more than a year later, martial law. So we wondered if there will be such a suspension again as a prelude.
Instead, we get a suspension of work and classes for Sept. 21. I did laugh out loud too, and have to say the suspension brought almost comic relief.
But I would be careful about letting down our guard. I still worry about Duterte acting like the eccentric uncle: “all right, all right, go and have your fun but you’re dead if you get into trouble.”
We have to be aware of how history rhymes, rather than repeats.
There are more constitutional safeguards, my lawyer friends try to comfort me. Sure, I retort, but Marcos would have found it easier to impose martial law in 2017 than in 1972, when he had to postpone the declaration of martial even until the last minute waiting for Congress, with firebrands like Ninoy Aquino, to go on recess.
The military and the police are more professional now, I am told, and I will agree, wholeheartedly. But I have also seen impunity at the grassroots level, much worse now than under Marcos. When Duterte threatened to bomb lumad schools, which his spokesmen quickly qualified as not being serious, civilian paramilitary groups in lumad areas celebrated, threatened to kill, and killed.
What I worry most is that, all said, Duterte might realize he need not declare martial law to implement his dictates. It is not the armed units under him, from the very beginning already at his disposal, some ever ready to jump the gun. It is not an already subservient Congress. It is us the people, unarmed to start with and, with time, emotionally and morally disarmed.
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