How the President called the public’s bluff

December 14, 2009

Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
December 13, 2009

Caroln Arguillas, Reporting in MINdanews on Dec. 9, detailed how justice slowed down after martial law was imposed in Maguindanao. Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer asserted that a limitation of the state of emergency was, it required the military and police to secure warrants. Martial law, he said, permitted warrantless arrests and searches. And yet Arguillas observed that the military approached the Ampatuan properties more gingerly after martial law, taking hours to negotiate entry into properties like Andal Ampatuan Sr.’s mansion.

I have a theory, based on Sen. Francis Pangilinan’s line of questioning addressed to Justice Secretary Agnes Devanadera. He challenged the administration’s assertion that martial law gave the government two powers it would otherwise not enjoy: warrantless arrests and searches. Pangilinan didn’t contest warrantless arrests for the crime of rebellion, but said he was troubled that the administration thought it could dispense with search warrants.

I think the military was bothered by the administration assertion, too; but then I also think the military (the police, it seems, were just clumsy overall) was more inclined to scrupulously ensure no abuses or flouting of the law would taint its conduct during martial law. The painstaking negotiations to enter the Ampatuan properties ensured that even without a warrant, anything discovered would remain legally admissible—the military didn’t barge in, it secured permission.

It also seems to me that even if, by all accounts, the Palace had the votes in Congress to block the revocation of martial law, and felt reasonably confident the Supreme Court might see things its way, it couldn’t risk waiting in agony only to end up the way Devanadera did: mutely gulping like a goldfish in the face of Sen. Rodolfo Biazon’s question on what exactly were the legal impediments she claimed had been eliminated by martial law.

Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. suggested, after martial law was lifted last Saturday, that in truth all that martial law offers is “shock and awe,” that is, its psychological impact is what matters. Which is why President Macapagal-Arroyo had to impose it to break the Mexican standoff in Maguindanao by cowing the Ampatuans who had no idea what it really meant or how long it might last.

He may be correct. Arguillas reported that on the morning after martial law was proclaimed, Andal Ampatuan Sr. was ready by 1 a.m., while ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan was all set to go by 7 a.m.; neither resisted military invitations to be taken into government custody. Martial law is the ultimate political bluff: and the senators were calling the bluff in terms of fact and law.

Two other psychological aspects come to mind. First, the ability of the President to get the military, the police and the bureaucracy to implement martial law has been conclusively proven. So has the inability of Congress to move with speed and of the Supreme Court to render judgment on the factual basis for the martial law imposition and the suspension of the writ.

Sen. Miriam Santiago circled the Cabinet like a Valkyrie, pelting it with law books. Sen. Richard Gordon zeroed in on the command responsibility of the administration’s candidate during his stint as defense chief, while Rep. Satur Ocampo demonstrated how difficult it is for any government to secure convictions for rebellion.

While irrelevant to the mindless vote the House of Representatives was poised to accomplish, these points are important in terms of 2010. They also underscore how, in this clash of government branches, neither the legislature nor judiciary mattered. The ultimate check on the President’s powers came from the public—including those who hailed martial law.

Locsin, in putting forward a case for martial law, which the administration itself was too incompetent to think up, said that public outrage and the demands of justice “cry out for the most extreme exercise of the police power, which is nothing less than martial law.”

Writing in MindaNews, Gail Ilagan had previously cautioned the media over thoughtlessly amplifying calls for aggressive action without taking heed of the consequences of those calls. Martial law was the bastard child of public outrage and official panic.

The public message had, indeed, been a simple, and ferocious one: get the Ampatuans for committing mass murder and at all costs—so long as no one outside Maguindanao has to get a dose of the Ampatuans’ medicine.

I think the Palace was aware from the start that this was a non-debatable condition imposed even by those hailing the President’s decision. But even as Archbishop Orlando Quevedo bestowed the mandate of heaven on martial law, there emerged two troubling conditions. First, Bishop Martin Jumoad of Isabela prayed for martial law in Basilan, and PaLaKa regional chairman for Region X Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo demanded that martial law be imposed in Lanao del Norte.Then, like a swarm of army ants, all sorts of forces started acting aggressively, taking hostages, conducting raids, and generally creating the kind of mayhem that had people wondering nervously if those demanding martial law and the forces taking advantage of the armed forces’ and police’s concentration in Maguindanao might lead to a confluence of events conducive to more martial law declarations.

So martial law had to be lifted before Congress or the Supreme Court could act, or public opinion could harden.

The Ampatuans are where the Palace needs them—out of sight, and thus out of mind—and political points have been scored. But these will have no relevance, in turn, to the actual results the public cares about: the prosecution of psychopathic warlords for mass murder.


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