When social amelioration ends, terror begins?
President Duterte has certified as urgent an upgraded anti-terrorism bill which both houses of Congress dutifully churned out with dispatch. But it has roiled the nation due to its content and timing, coming as it is in the midst of a pandemic that has already caused death, hunger, helplessness, and frustration. The key question is, “Why, President Duterte?”Former presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo indulged in legal poetry when he said the coronavirus is the “invasion” that could justify martial law. But the new anti-terrorism bill might indeed be intended to address insurgent restiveness, riots, and anarchy should the government dismally fail to secure 110 million people in the face of the pandemic. Is that what this is about—Mr. Duterte’s insurance against his failure to “save” his people during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The proposed anti-terrorism law will certainly dampen the public’s democratic exuberance. Operationally, the law will work against those, who by their own actions and contexts, identify themselves as thorns in the side of the administration by inciting to or being involved in terrorism, as understood by the omniscient military, police, and the “pillars of justice.” The definition of terrorism in the new law is as vague as it is expansive, so most likely it will include the usual suspects — journalists, bloggers, ranters on social media, satirists, purveyors of ego-gouging sarcasm, academics, protesters of lost livelihood and of missing social amelioration assistance.
So far, the anti-terrorism bill is so odious that serious questions have been raised about its constitutionality that on its face infringes freedom of expression. It has already been met with a robust resistance commensurate to its odiousness. Former senior associate justice Antonio Carpio said it can be opposed on its face, and so it will be. Some eight business groups have jointly declared their opposition, lamenting that what the country needs at this time is national unity in the face of the pandemic, not a new law that clearly threatens human rights. A June 4 report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights expresses concern: “The proposed 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, slated to replace the already problematic Human Security Act, dilutes human rights safeguards, broadens the definition of terrorism and expands the period of detention without warrant…. The vague definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act may violate the principle of legality.”
So, it is not going Mr. Duterte’s way, and this is where he will erode much of his political capital. There will be legal battles to fight. There will be public rage over sordid enforcer impunities to absorb. There will be enforcement agencies to repurpose. Judging by the waning energy and focus exhibited by the police in checkpoints and being worn down by the Winston Ragos and Debold Sinas controversies, and other misadventures, they now suffer from enforcement fatigue. Mr. Duterte will need to spend a lot of resources to further “incentivize” institutions and individual officers, like Marcos did, to bring them to full attention and fascistic utility.
The use of state force for social control is the Xi Jinping and CPC playbook that has worked so well in the People’s Republic of China. But it would be madness to think Mr. Duterte has anything comparable by way of totalitarian machinery. Sure, the majorities in Congress, the Supreme Court, and many of the top officials in the vast civilian bureaucracy, the constitutional commissions, and even the taipans, moguls, and oligarchs all try to kowtow to him, but that is not borne of a system-wide, national community framework that is sustainable over time. The self-serving alignment that we see among the rich, powerful, and influential in and out of government beholden to Malacañang is evocative of the alignment of thousands of janitor fish homing in on a source of enriched sewage.
Mr. Duterte has less than two years as president. Because he is not a Ferdinand Marcos, he does not have what it takes to engineer to extend himself beyond his term. Sure, he can extend himself through his alter ego, Bong Go, but a repeat of May 2016 is unlikely in May 2022. The Philippines, after all, while often described as a political and economic basket case, is not a hopeless case. So, after the constitutional, legal, mass media, and public opinion battles, what will the anti-terrorism bill realistically accomplish for Mr. Duterte?
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.