Life-and-death struggle to control Edsa
CANBERRA—The deployment of the Philippine National Police’s Highway Patrol Group (HPG) to ease traffic on six choke points of Edsa—the graveyard of two administrations in the span of 15 years—has been presented as a mere traffic experiment. But it is more than that or the government’s effort to raise the profile of the constabulary as an agent of political change in the post-Edsa 1 years. Equally important as serving as the landmark in the shifting political grounds of our turbulent democracy is the fact that this 24-kilometer stretch ringing Metro Manila has defined the contours of our postwar economic, security and social history, as the center of gravity of political change for nearly two generations.
When the HPG patrols began to show their presence on Edsa on Monday for traffic easement duties, their intervention marked the start of a new era in the Philippine secular state’s assertion of its autonomy from pressure from lobby groups—whether economic, bureaucratic or religious—seeking to take control of the seats of political power.
It is important to note that the redefinition of Edsa as the geographical battleground of contending interest groups was triggered by the destructive street protests of a religious sect, the Iglesia ni Cristo, that were centered on Edsa. The mass action was the INC’s version of an attempt to seize state power, not through armed violence, but by unleashing its mobs on key traffic routes to paralyze economic activity and the movement of people. It was a bludgeon to bring the government to its knees, to heed the INC’s demand to scuttle the Department of Justice’s inquiry into a complaint of harassment and illegal detention that was an offshoot of allegations of corruption in the sect’s financial affairs.
It must be understood that in deploying the HPG trouble-shooters to the streets, the government is sending a powerful message not only to the Iglesia ni Cristo but also to the public and the business community (which has a tremendous stake in freedom of passage on Edsa). The message is: Edsa is the lifeline of the government’s survival; Edsa belongs to all the people, not solely to the INC or even the majority religion, the Catholic Church; no group has a franchise on Edsa; the only institution that has the mandate to control Edsa is the state.
The government has sent the emphatic message that it rises or falls on the grounds of Edsa. Whatever agreement, if ever there was one, that the government reached with the INC as tradeoff for the sect’s ending of the occupation of Edsa, the best proof that it is serious about exercising its mandate is the deployment of the HPG patrols on the historic highway. Its resolve to hold the Edsa line faces a crucial test. It has to demonstrate it is unwavering when the next protests surface on Edsa.
Police authorities erroneously restricted the functions of the HPG troops, relegating them to traffic management and easing traffic congestion. This downgrades the fundamental issue of Edsa, which is political. Yet to be discussed is the catastrophic impact of the INC’s mass action on the economy and the disruption caused by the street protests on the lives of the common people commuting on Edsa to earn a living and pursue productive activities in Metro Manila.
The PNP’s marching orders to the HPG define the focus of its geographic operational zones. These orders fell short of declaring that the patrols have political functions with a larger impact than merely relieving traffic congestion due to, among others, bottlenecks, undisciplined drivers, bad driving habits, too many vehicles (including provincial buses) and not enough cops on the road, and buses not using their assigned lanes. There was no mention at all that the INC protests aggravated the normal congestion beyond breaking point, resulting in the monstrous logjam created by the mobs unleashed by a sect that wanted to be treated as a sacred cow because of its capacity to deliver bloc votes to politicians seeking its favors.
In defining the territory of operations of the HPG, police authorities fell short of declaring where protest actions are henceforth banned. In effect, they have defined Edsa as a national security zone, where protest groups can assemble to express their grievances or hold mass rallies to overthrow administrations. The strategic value of Edsa for crowd control lies in that it is the site of the two largest camps—Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the military, and Camp Crame, the headquarters of the police. Security forces based in the two camps protect the seat of government, Malacañang, from coup attempts. The Edsa 1 (1986) and Edsa 2 (2001) revolts were both centered on Edsa. This is why police authorities drew Edsa as the last line of defense of a beleaguered government, as well as the launching ground for military revolts (that of Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel V. Ramos in Edsa 1).
Although we went through, and survived, the season of coup attempts after Edsa 1, we have not yet established an era of sustained political stability. The turbulent events on Edsa in the past weeks have underlined the strategic importance of maintaining control of it against new threats of political unrest—regardless of the source. Therefore, who controls Edsa will remain our foremost security concern for the next few years. Mark my words: The security forces (or any government) will never cede this control to any challenger.
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