When we regained our freedom, there was a popular song that said that we will never allow the aberration that was Martial Law to happen again. And starting in 2001, however, my predecessor, instead of learning the lessons of Martial Law, seemingly adopted Mr. Marcos’ handbook on how to abuse the democratic process.
— President Benigno Aquino 3rd speaking at Harvard University, Sept. 21
Maybe it’s too much to ask of a politician. Still, our Filipino and Christian culture hold certain tenets sacrosanct, even in the often ruthless and unprincipled world of politics.
Don’t hit a man when he’s down, is one unwritten, but strongly felt rule. Nothing like beating up on an ailing enemy to get Filipinos siding with the latter. Another principle is to make sure one is clean before calling the kettle black. Or else people quickly retort: Look who’s talking. Of course, there’s the most basic tenet of all: Speak the truth.
You’d think a leader whose father was publicly vilified while under detention; whose mother largely avoided excoriating the excesses of her husband’s oppressor; and who recently quoted the Gospel of St. John about the truth setting one free, would be the last to castigate a grandmother jailed and sick for purportedly abusing democracy when three fingers of his accusing hand are rightly pointed back at himself.
Yet President Benigno Aquino 3rd did just that in his address at one of the world’s great institutions revered for discovering and propagating truth and knowledge, Harvard University: he hit a woman while she’s down, accusing her of abuses, when, in truth, it is he who has failed to learn from our authoritarian past and committed the same sins against democracy done by dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Just recall what Marcos did, then truthfully consider what Aquino has done.
Marcos sought to rule beyond the limit of two presidential terms by declaring martial law, purportedly to institute sweeping national reforms, then promulgating a new Constitution crafted by delegates bribed by the Palace, and dubiously ratified not by popular vote, but by an assembly of handpicked barangay leaders—all this transpiring under the M-14s of martial law troops.
Today, we have a president who has openly talked of changing the charter promulgated by his mother, so he could rule beyond his single term, and with less oversight from the Judiciary. The very provisions he wants to scrap are the ones instituted to prevent a return to abusive, undemocratic one-man rule. Talk about not learning the lessons of martial law!
To amend the charter Aquino can mobilize a Congress seduced by pork barrel and hostaged by incriminating pork papers, and a computerized election canvassing system which has proven effective in delivering voting ratios favoring the government. The Precinct Count Optical Scan system beats hands down the Marcos-era schemes which robbed the opposition of votes in Batasan polls, and declared the strongman winner against Corazon Aquino in the 1986 snap elections, igniting people power.
Usurping power and coddling cronies
Under martial law, Marcos not only wielded law-making powers, but also set up a rubber-stamp Batasan to pass the statutes he wanted. Today, Aquino’s pork-barreled clout over Congress is beyond doubt. Even with that, he and his budget secretary decided to usurp the legislature’s power of the purse by recasting the General Appropriations Acts of three consecutive years.
The dictatorship that Filipinos brought down and replaced with a democracy under Aquino’s mother, was also notorious for channeling state funds to allies and cronies, and tolerating the corruption of close Marcos associates.
The current Aquino administration has more than doubled pork barrel spending to more than P80 billion till the Supreme Court halted it last year, and diverted even more billions to Congress allies under the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program. And Malacañang has leapt to the defense of close Aquino associates—the infamous Kaklase, Kakampi, Kabarilan clique—embroiled in anomalies.
Media control was another hallmark of Marcos rule: crony-owned newspapers and broadcast networks sang the regime’s praises and ignored its anomalies and abuses.
Today, the same tack of headlining administration gains and downplaying failings marks the so-called yellow journalism of the mainstream media. The pro-Aquino papers and broadcasters have also lent themselves to media campaigns against political rivals.
Detaining and demonizing opponents
Speaking of Palace adversaries, both Marcos and Aquino jailed and demonized opponents. Aquino’s father Ninoy was among countless leaders arrested under martial law. Though a civilian, the dissident senator was tried, convicted and sentence to death by a military court.
Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Arroyo was barred from seeking medical treatment abroad, even when the Department of Justice’s travel ban on her and her husband was lifted by the Supreme Court. Then, no-bail charges were rushed by a joint DOJ-Commission on Elections probe, which offered immunity from prosecution to an accused Maguindanao Massacre perpetrator for his affidavit accusing Arroyo of electoral sabotage.
When the court finally saw through that dubious witness and granted Mrs. Arroyo bail due to weak evidence after nine months of detention, the Ombudsman concocted another no-bail charge of plunder despite her own preliminary investigation finding no ground for it.
To Marcos’s credit, he allowed his detained adversary Ninoy to go to Harvard for heart surgery, even if the opposition leader was already condemned to death by the military court. Under President Aquino, however, Arroyo is prevented from seeking corrective surgery abroad needed to address a potentially life-threatening misaligned implant in her neck spine. It has caused her to choke on food twice, including a recent scary episode around the time Aquino was attacking her at Harvard.
The hardest lesson to learn
Perhaps the most important cautionary tale from the Marcos regime, at least for leaders with autocratic tendencies, is his unshakeable belief till the very end that he was invincible. During a press conference just days before his fall, the dictator ordered a curfew only to have it disregarded by all of Metro Manila, much like a recent presidential remark, purportedly a joke, asking administration supporters to wear yellow ribbons.
One of Marcos’ last TV speeches was cut off the air when the government channel fell to rebel soldiers, then resumed broadcast with dissident hosts. Yet he managed a final oath-taking and address from the Palace balcony before American aircraft spirited him and his family and closest cronies away to Subic and Honolulu.
This is the hardest lesson for autocrats to learn: how the end, when it comes, would be swift and unexpected. Despite what has happened to so many others before him, every tyrant thinks he will be different. Until God shows him that only His kingdom has no end.