A Month to Remember… a Month to Forget

February was a cruel month for us here in the Philippines. Every week, we dealt with disasters, of both the manmade and the natural kind. On 4 February, we woke to news that at least 70 people, mostly old women, died in a stampede at a popular noontime game show. It was promised that a million pesos would be given out to a lucky audience member, some of whom had waited in line for a week just to be able to get inside the stadium. Most of the audience was poor; living hand-to-mouth existences. Thus, the promise of cash (more than they could earn in their lifetimes) had them glued to that inane show, day in and day out.

By the second week of the month, a small farming town in Southern Leyte was erased from the map when the side of the mountain eroded and buried the town. Of the 1,500 inhabitants, only about 100 — too few by any standards — survived.

To cap the month, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is battling allegations that she cheated in the 2004 elections, used Presidential Proclamation 1017 to place the whole country under a state of national emergency. Although 1017 was only enforced for a week, it was enough proof that this President, as a recent New York Times editorial described, was increasingly becoming a strongman, or rather, strongwoman. (“Dark Days for Philippine Democracy” 5 April 06.) When Arroyo declared the state of emergency on 24 February (the 20th anniversary of the EDSA revolution, that proud moment we kicked out a dictator and ended 24 years of martial rule from 1972-1986) everybody thought it was the universe’s way of having a joke. But why at our expense? Can’t other countries take the beating instead of us, like I don’t know, Finland? Come on, we deserve a break.

Days before 24 February, there were already signs that something fishy was going on. For those of us in the media, the feeling was more acute. The reporters covering the military and the national defense beats were inundated by talks and text messages warning that some disgruntled officers were preparing to break from the chain of command and withdraw support from Arroyo. Rumors of a coup d’etat had been circulating since last year, when allegations that Arroyo, with the help of the military top brass, had cheated in the last election. It was alleged that votes were manipulated in conflict-ridden regions in Western Mindanao into Arroyo’s favor. Last August, she survived an impeachment bid by members of the House of Representatives on these charges, not because she wasn’t found guilty, but because her party controls the House and thus, was able to successfully junk the impeachment charges.

But this time around, reports of a brewing coup were more concrete — enough for some reporters to stock up clothes in their offices, just in case. On the streets, the opposition was consolidating and massive protest rallies were becoming events once again. Something was definitely brewing, and whoever was responsible, he or she was up to no good. We were all waiting for it to happen.

And on the dawn of the 24th, it happened. We woke to the news that a military general and a police general from the elite forces were taken into custody for masterminding the power grab plot. Arroyo, the military leadership, and the cabinet held an emergency meeting to assess the situation. By morning, tanks from the military camps up North rolled into Manila and anti-riot policemen and soldiers in full battle gear lined the streets to bar the expected protesters.

By 10am, Arroyo went on national television to declare a state of national emergency, pointing out that she was protecting the country from the grasp of a rightist-leftist military coalition out to quash democratic rule in favor of a government that would include the communists. I should mention that Army Chief Lt. Gen. Hermogenes C. Esperon, the general who announced the plot to the media, is an Arroyo lackey. In fact, he was implicated in the vote-rigging in Mindanao. Therefore, should we give value to this so-called coup plot?

The state of national emergency, Arroyo and her cabinet quickly argued, was not martial law. How could it be? Arroyo’s spin doctors told the media that she didn’t abolish Congress and the Judiciary, like Marcos did. Granted, it was technically different, but the function was the same. It was an act of self-preservation for Arroyo; she was prepared to do anything just to drown out the critics.

On the day we celebrate the mother of all street protests, the EDSA anniversary, street protests were banned and those caught would be “invited” for police questioning. News and media outlets were monitored heavily. A day after 1017 was announced, police raided an oppositionist newspaper and installed policemen in the Daily Tribune office 24/7. Protesters were violently dispersed, some of them dragged to police stations without warrants.

A leftist congressman was arrested, also without a warrant, just outside his residence. When he arrived at the police station in Manila, Crispin Beltran, a former labor leader and a vocal Arroyo critic, was shown a rebellion charge sheet filed by the Marcos government against him in 1985 that was eventually dismissed. Of course, the police said they had no way of knowing that the case was over because it was Saturday and the court was closed. In the meantime, Mr. Beltran, an elderly man suffering from hypertension, had to stay in detention, ostensibly until new charges were cooked up against him. Days after Mr. Beltran’s arrest, five of his fellow party-list representatives were also charged with rebellion. They would have been arrested had not the House Speaker, after some public pressure, taken them into his custody.

How fitting and telling it was that the Arroyo government had to use the former dictator’s tactics. Proclamation 1017 had come and gone, but Mr. Beltran is still under police custody and his five colleagues are still holed up in Congress’ premises. The police have a standing order to arrest them should they leave the sanctuary of the House. Although the government said the power grab plot involves the Left, the Right, and the military, only the six leftist congressmen, the most vocal of the Arroyo critics, were arrested during the state of emergency.

I was born four years before the martial law ended and the Marcoses left Manila, with their jewels sewn inside Imelda’s dresses. I was lucky enough to have escaped the experience of oppression under the Marcos regime, where the military, acting as Ferdinand Marcos’ torture machine, killed about 3,000 people, tortured 35,000, and imprisoned 70,000. What I learned about martial law I learned from history books, professors, and friends who were there dodging the bullets and fleeing the police and lived to tell about it.

One professor of mine, who was part of the underground resistance movement, was cited in an Amnesty International report as one of those tortured by a then young police officer, and now Senator, Panfilo Lacson. The professor has terrible mood swings and is a bit paranoid; an innocent remark in class can set him on a tirade about the “general state of affairs”. Another professor, who has become a good friend, talks little about the ’70s. All he can say about that period is, “a lot of my friends died”.

Although life was normal and it was business as usual for almost everyone during the week long semi-martial law, there was a feeling of dread and uncertainty about the future — two emotions that should not be felt in a democratic country. What would happen next? What would Arroyo do? Half of me believed that she wouldn’t declare an all out martial law, not because she has a conscience, but because she couldn’t afford to waste the international community’s goodwill. As a US-educated economist (she and Bill Clinton were classmates at Georgetown), she receives good press from the international business community.

But half of me also believed that Arroyo could do anything, as she has the support of active and retired military generals. She might put the country under a state of emergency if she feels threatened again, a scenario that is very likely as she cannot silence her critics, nor can she quash the discontent. That the street protests against her didn’t end in her removal from office does not mean the public has accepted her. In fact, Arroyo is the most hated president in recent history. Her satisfaction and trust ratings have been in the negative level, much lower than what Marcos received during his own bloody tenure.

Arroyo is one lucky president and we are one unlucky people. We could only look at Thailand with envy when they were able to force their despised Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office after weeks of protests. Things like that never happen to us. Why can’t we get a break, like the Thais? Arroyo will hold on to her power as long as possible; she cannot be pried from the presidency, resigned pundits say. She will stay until her term ends in 2010. These days, when I think about the future, I feel like I’m looking down a deep, dark well.