THEY said it was just like this. The first few months of martial law during the Marcos dictatorship had an avid and strong base of support from the vocal middle class and even upper echelons of Philippine society. If you were promised safer streets outside your gated subdivisions and you were spared from the confiscation of your business properties, there is much to be grateful for, given the self-interested nature of the elite.
Until, of course, sooner or later, the salvagings, arrests, and state persecution get literally too close to home and what was once perceived as a prudent practice of state power is revealed for all its brutal excesses that count family friends, relatives, acquaintances as victims. It took the Philippine middle class more than a decade before they came to their senses and braved the tanks and battle-ready marines at Edsa. One wonders if it will take that long for Duterte and his current administration to unravel.
Matters are definitely unraveling at the moment. There has been an orgy of killings that started out with the wholesale targeting of lowly drug peddlers and a few drug lords reportedly by state-sanctioned agents when Duterte assumed office. There are estimates that bring the number of these victims to the thousands and the killings continue every night if the news reports are to be believed. Apart from the carnage that is reported from the countryside such as the assassination of bonnet-wearing gunmen of Lumad leaders and activists, three Roman Catholic priests have been felled by the same brutal method.
As if to taunt the faithful, two of these, Fathers Mark Ventura and more recently Richmond Nilo, were shot by assassins while wearing their holy vestments inside their sacred chapels in full view of their congregations. The message was unmistakable, nothing is holy or sacred for this set. They will get you and your God cannot provide you refuge from the will of the killers if they set their mind to it. Which are exactly the kind of words that we hear from Duterte himself weeks later in his most recent tirade against the church. It is truly a chilling moment when no less than the President himself disrespects the faith that many of his countrymen still believe in and consider important in their lives.
But what is truly remarkable is that this escalation of murders and killings is justified in the name of protecting the Republic. The dead and those persecuted are demonized as enemies of a warped morality – they are collateral damage or to be discarded for being different.
The heirs of the Marcos dictatorship, when they look back on those dark days almost five decades ago, suddenly acquire selective memories. They deny that the state-sanctioned murders, tortures, and arrests took place or if they did, chalked it off as necessary collateral damage to defend the Republic, which they saw as their family’s birthright. This same misplaced bravado works well for the current occupants of Malacanang and their apologists. It functions to mask their complicity to the killings while propping up their egos as defenders of the republic.
An even more discomforting realization is how the Philippine police and military have assumed these roles as the budding dictator’s shock troops without hesitation. The dizzying power and blanket freedom that Duterte allows his favored institution, without mechanisms of checks and balances, must have its uncontrollable effects. So much for the so-called process of professionalization of the officers’ ranks in the past decades, they remain a mercenary army of whoever is the feudal lord occupying Malacanang.
These developments all reveal to us that we learned very little from our troubled history in the past five decades. For instance, it would be wrong to attribute all the 3,257 killed, about 35,000 tortured, and 70,000 arrested to the singular will and wishes of Marcos, the dictator. But he sure allowed his constabulary and military to sow terror and practice absolute state power for his political purposes and that is to keep himself and his family in power. I do not think that the present occupant of Malacanang is straying far from this game plan.
But what Marcos, his heirs, and now Duterte, do not understand is that by using impunity as a cynical political tool to amplify their hold to power is very much like unleashing the genie out of the bottle, the wild and irrepressible lion from out of a cage. State power is an unwieldy powerful beast. Once given a taste of blood, its agents will hunt and devour the prey that its masters set them on to. But of course, the hunted, in their numbers, will once again learn to fight back.