The battle between President Benigno Aquino 3rd and the Catholic bishops — which is what our national politics and public life have now come to – will not be decided by a faceoff of cassock vs. tanks at EDSA, as happened in 1986 when President Marcos was brought down.
The government averted such a confrontation when it completely shut down EDSA early in the morning last Wednesday, February 25, and did not allow even a mouse from getting through.
The planned protest chain of people from Camp Crame to the EDSA shrine could not be formed. Even a mere symbolic chain can frighten the government today.
The battle between Benigno 3rd and the bishops will be decided by word power. The battle has become a battle of semantics, of words and their meanings.
Both sides are now hobbled by the weight of the words they have carelessly or strategically employed. Whoever takes better control of their vocabulary will probably prevail.
The bishops: Torturing words
The bishops , representing the Catholic church and backed by other congregations, entered the fray with a marked advantage, based on the trust index.
The Church has the highest trust rating among Filipino social institutions, while the government, led by President Aquino and Congress, has the lowest trust rating.
For reasons only they can explain, the bishops – or the National Transformation Council (NTC) — have boxed themselves into a corner by torturing the distinction between the words “resign” and “step down.”
It makes a world of difference to them how precisely, and what word is used to characterize President Aquino’s departure from the presidency.
The bishops do not want Aquino to simply turn in his resignation, primarily because, besides making millions of Filipinos happy, it will also exalt Vice-President Jejomar Binay, who will promptly fill up the space PNoy will leave behind. And then he will start to do his thing, along with his gang and family.
The bishops and their fervent supporters do not want Binay to succeed to the highest office, as ordained by the Constitution in the event of a vacancy.
What they want is for Aquino to “step down” instead, and yield the presidency to the mercies of a transition council, wherein they will take part in discharging affairs of state and in choosing who will administer the work of government. They have also demanded that the entire cabinet and all members of congress step down.
This way, they fantasize that they can do their thing of subjecting national politics and politicians to something like a “moral bath,” an idea that was first propounded by Leo Tolstoy in his great novel, War and Peace.
Benigno 3rd: Burying problems with words
With equal alacrity, President Aquino – backed by his spokesmen and gangmates in Congress – has tortured words and meanings, in his desperate effort to hang on by his fingernails to the presidency and to extricate himself from accountability for what happened in Mamasapano.
The administration began by calling the tragedy a “misencounter.” When that did not fly, and the public and the media uniformly labeled it as a “massacre,” they retreated to calling it an “incident.”
Then, when they realized that it was not enough to get Aquino off the hook, they decided to call the thing a “clash.” And they got all the crony media to trumpet the change.
With respect to the role of the President in the debacle, which the public and the Senate inquiry have persisted in digging into, the administration adopted a new strategy. Using the nation’s senators as pawns, it pushed the narrative that Aquino was “misinformed” about what was happening in Mamasapano on January 25.
When Alan Purisima produced text messages and testified that Aquino was informed quite early about the operation and of the need of the commandos for reinforcements, and that he did nothing, they changed the narrative again.
They averred that Aquino was “lied” to by Purisima, whom he had installed as commander of Oplan Exodus.
The next narrative twist, I think, will be to portray Aquino as a “victim” in Mamasapano.
Who will win this battle of semantics?
In my college studies in logic, English and literature, I was told and learned early that behind good writing is good thinking. Crooked thinking will not produce good writing and speech
The bishops have not thought out clearly what they want and what is politically possible under our laws and in the current situation.
Like the Thai protesters in their fight against the Thaksin siblings, they seek an extra-constitutional solution to our problem of leadership. In Thailand, this led to a shutdown of Bangkok and then a coup, which succeeded mainly because it was blessed by the king. In our case, there is no king to soften and make palatable a military takeover.
The weakness of the administration’s position is that it just keeps throwing words at the problem of public disgust and Aquino’s unpopularity, very much like throwing money at problems.
Neither strategy is working.
Torturing words, like torturing human beings, yields no benefits. Words cannot confess.
Burying problems with words does not work either, because the problems will not stay buried. Aquino’s accountability in Mamasapano will not go away.
De Lima’s threat to arrest bishops
As if the verbal avalanche from the government was not enough, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima weighed in with her two cents worth. But this merely showed how badly President Aquino is losing the battle for public support.
She issued a warning that the bishops and the National Transformation Council could be charged with sedition and rebellion for issuing their call for the resignation of President Aquino, his Cabinet and all members of both houses of Congress.
The reply of the bishops was quick. Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, a convenor of the NTC, taunted the government by saying he is not afraid to go to jail and that such would give him “great pleasure.”
The prelate, who led the latest gathering of the council in Lipa City, Batangas, on Thursday, said:
“It will be a great pleasure for me if I go to jail. Many of those in jail are innocent and still many of those guilty are there not because they are the only sinners but the greater sinners are free and are placed in government.” He insisted that their actions cannot be considered as sedition or rebellion.
This battle looks more and more like a no-contest and a tragedy for President Aquino.
Just a week after hosting a historic and memorable visit by Pope Francis to the Philippines, the Mamasapano incident happened and dissipated the sense of national good feeling that it generated.
Now two months after, Aquino is locked into a battle of survival against the princes of the Catholic church.
A leader should know how to pick his fights, and when to throw in the gloves.