Philippines: towards martial law again?


By John Queripel

MANILA — Few people would have thought that just eight years after the 1986 People's Power revolution, the spectre of martial law would again hang over the Philippines. Yet several indications are that this could be the case.

Since coming to power in 1992, President Fidel Ramos has gradually extended his power base. The measures include the reactivation and broadening of the scope of the National Security Council, attempts to override the Supreme Court, the gathering of emergency powers and bringing together a coalition that leaves little opposition in Congress.

Ramos is no ordinary civilian. He headed the Philippine Constabulary during the martial law years, and his decisions led to the imprisonment of thousands.

Under Aquino as armed forces chief of staff and later defence secretary, he was the architect of the "total war" policy carried out by that administration in its battle against communist rebels. Millions of non-combatants were terrorised and more than 1 million internal refugees produced by indiscriminate bombings, strafing and hamleting in the countryside.

On becoming president, one of Ramos' first actions was the reactivation of the National Security Council by Administrative Order Number 2. The order states that the "NSC Director General shall undertake measures to reorient the NSC and the Intelligence Community from its limited concern with political and military threats to broader national goals including social and economic development".

This is the classic parlance of the national security state, in which all policy, economics, culture and social questions are subsumed under the issue of security of the state. As an administrative order of the executive, this order did not require Congressional ratification. Still, a number of Senators spoke of their fear of the order.

Retired Brigadier General Jose Almonte, the NSC director general, one of a number of ex-military men Ramos has appointed to high positions, admitted that his deputy, Romeo Fernandez, drafted the presidential order. Fernandez served as chief of the notorious National Intelligence Security Agency under Marcos.

Almonte himself has said, "National security has ceased to be the sole concern of the armed forces and the defence establishment. It has become the concern as well of departments and agencies dealing with politics, the economy and even culture."

The most blatant example of national security considerations overriding constitutionality was the August call by Almonte to the Rebolusyongaryong Alyansang Makabayan (RAM), urging them not to "compromise your idealism, then we will have a group who can threaten these people who are resisting reforms".

Since RAM, under the leadership of Colonel Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, consists of heavily armed ex-military men, it is clear that an appeal to more than the organisation's "idealism" was being made. RAM made numerous unsuccessful coup attempts against the Aquino administration.

Almonte elsewhere has stated, "No nation is threatened by a revolution; a nation is threatened only if it can no longer make a revolution". Those who stand in the way of this "revolution" are the traditional oligarchic forces, especially as represented by the traditional politicians. The leaders of the revolution are the government. This "revolution from the centre" i.e. the government, was the philosophy and language of Marcos in imposing martial law.

Almonte believes that "authoritarianism and democracy are only as good or bad as their leaders". That he believes authoritarianism is the better system for the "revolution" is given away when he states, "We lost our chance to reform the country in 1972" — the year Marcos' martial law began.

Those opposing the government's "reforms", as typified by opposition to the expanded value added tax and the signing of the GATT accords, will certainly find little comfort in Almonte's words.

Ramos' dealing with the power crisis showed his tendency to seek recourse in emergency powers. The Supreme Court having denied him a power rate increase of 18 centavos per kilowatt hour, Ramos turned to Congress, which he forced to grant him the emergency powers he needed to deal with the issue.

His method of gaining the emergency powers through the Extra Powers Law has been legally called into question. Senator Arturo Telentino, a constitutional expert, doubted the legality of this law, for no proper vote was held in the Senate.

Within Congress, Ramos has cobbled together a grand coalition and thus completely dominates the lower chamber. Opposition comes only from a much smaller group, ironically consisting mainly of Marcos loyalists.

The Senate, however, is a source of frustration for Ramos, and he has been canvassing ways of dissolving it. With a constitution rewritten to establish a unicameral system, he would have the added advantage of being able to stand as the country's leader again, something he is unable to do under the present constitution.

The president has not been afraid to take on even the Supreme Court. When the government indicated its desire to impose an expanded VAT, the Supreme Court placed a restraining order on it because of technicalities which made its passage through Congress legally doubtful. Although the court later upheld the tax, it never lifted the restraining order.

Despite that order being in place, Solicitor General Raul Goco, in a motion filed with the court, said Malacanang intended to collect the tax from October 1. In response, the court described the motion as an act of "disrespect if not outright insolence", and warned that defiance of the restraining order "will be treated as a contemptuous act and dealt with accordingly". Thus far the government has held back from collecting the tax.

Many are saying, however, that the Supreme Court lacks teeth, having for too long been subservient to the demands of Malacanang.

In declaring the expanded VAT legislation to be legal, the court's rationale was that it should not interfere in the legislative process. This process included the use of a committee to amend, alter and substitute provisos in this bill even when these provisos were never subject to floor discussions or public hearings, nor to approval by the entire Congress. The Supreme Court is showing itself as weak as it was when it washed its hands of its duty to declare Marcos' martial law illegal.

The administration has also come into conflict with the Supreme Court over the game of jai-alai, the cause of much gambling. So plagued was the game with corruption that the Aquino administration ordered the court on which it is played in Manila to be closed.

Recently new operators have won the right to reopen it. When the Supreme Court upheld this right, Malacanang still ordered the games to cease. Former Senator Rene Saguisag, now head of the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity and Nationalism Inc (Mabini) likened the administration to a prostitute haggling for a fat fee after executive secretary Teopisto Guingona stated that the games would be allowed if the government got a fair share of the proceeds.

Ramos is far too clever a politician immediately to implement any form of martial law that would arouse opposition, but is gradually acquiring the powers to implement a de facto form of it. As one politician confided to me, "Ramos is astute, and the last astute politician we had was Marcos, from whom Ramos has learned well".